1. Leave all the Mexican stereotypes back home.
You can leave all your sombreros, piñatas, and maracas at home with the rest of your Cinco de Mayo decorations. As you’re planning your trip to Mexico, why don’t you spend a little time researching the general aspects of Mexican culture, especially the ones related to the places you’re gonna be visiting. The international conception of Mexico is somewhat of a parody put together by general misconceptions (ok, mostly Hollywood misconceptions), and even when social media has helped us putting the right picture in front of everyone’s eyes, it’s still common to find visitors (mainly in and around tourist traps like Cancun) that don’t have the least idea of where they’re standing.
There’s a saying among us Mexicans: “There’s not just a single Mexico.” Remember you’re gonna be visiting one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, a country with more than 60 active languages where indigenous identity mixed deeply with Catholicism. Not everything here is mariachis and sombreros.
2. Mexico is not a war zone, but you need to be cautious.
The Mexican drug war has left the international headlines and there have been some serious efforts from the tourism industry to put Mexico back on track. Most of the territory is perfectly safe for tourists and locals to go around, but that doesn’t mean you can go wandering around without some precautions. Remember that drug traffic is still a big problem in Mexico.
Common sense should keep you out of trouble, but here are some general recommendations that you should consider before traveling around the country (especially if you’re gonna be road tripping): consider your embassy’s advice regarding the regions that are safe for travelers and only venture into ‘unsafe territory’ if you’re following a local’s advice; use toll highways whenever possible and avoid driving in secondary roads or wandering off too far into unknown territory, especially after nightfall. If you want more specifics, there are lots of expat and travel forums around the Web where you’ll find people willing to help you get the best out of your Mexico trip.
3. Mexico is not your personal drug paradise.
Of course there are drugs around, and plenty of them, but there are some considerations you should take before that wild trip you had planned. As stated in my previous point, drug cartels are one of the biggest problems in Mexico; by buying drugs, you can be directly contributing to an industry responsible for thousands of deaths just in the past few years (of course, that is also true for most illegal drugs consumed in the US). Even as a consumer, you can be so close to the cartels that your personal safety could be at stake. Also, let’s not forget that Mexico’s public sector is considered highly corrupt according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that a good chunk of that corruption is around law institutions; the same law institutions that you’re gonna be facing if you get into some sort of trouble. Believe me, you don’t want to get caught with drugs by Mexico’s police or military.
4. Don’t encourage the illegal commerce of artifacts.
It might happen that during your visit to one of Mexico’s many archaeological sites, some local guy will try to sell you an original piece from an old forgotten empire. It’s most likely just an overpriced fake craft, but even if this wasn’t a scam, would you be willing to take the risks implied in international archaeological trafficking? I don’t think so. Besides, you probably have some amazing and culturally more valuable souvenirs all around you.
Skilled artisans can be found all around Mexico and their work represents the diversity and uniqueness of Mexican culture. The products of huichol or raramuri artisans are just two examples of crafts that are internationally renowned for their aesthetics and quality. When buying from artisans, you’re also buying a representation of Mexico and its people, a legal, and beautiful representation.
5. Know the difference between exotic and illegal.
Eating a grasshopper taco is nice, drinking a cocktail that includes turtle eggs is not. It can be hard to distinguish what is good and what is wrong when everything is so unique and different, and both sides of the coin occur side-by-side in broad daylight. Mexico has a big problem with illegal wildlife trade and exploitation, so you might want to double-check with local tourist services which are the local variants of this problem before you accidentally end up buying something that could get you into trouble.
6. Practice on that patience.
Here’s some excellent advice to everyone visiting Mexico: Don’t get your schedules too tight! People in Mexico, especially outside major cities, really take their time for everything. This has the potential to mess up any schedule that doesn’t take “Mexican time” into consideration. What can you do? Relax your itinerary, reserve some extra time for every meal, be patient, be really patient and always ask for specific times for any situation. Remember: “Ahorita” doesn’t mean shit.
7. Don’t be rude and try to avoid confrontation.
We are not best buddies with direct confrontation and trying to solve a problem by raising your voice is never a good idea in Mexico. Just listen to Mexicans (especially around the central part of the country), their Spanish is extremely polite, full of apologies, diminutives and euphemisms to soften every discussion. If you get angry or act too bossy, you’ve already lost the battle; you’ll make everyone uncomfortable and people will stop taking you seriously. Take things easy and remember that you’re in Mexico, where a smile will get you farther than anything else.
8. Don’t be offended if people call you gringo.
Mexican Spanish is packed with politically incorrect expressions and slang. You can mistakenly believe that Mexicans are the most disrespectful of people if you base your assumptions on their expressions, but most of these words mean no harm and we use them indistinctly with people we appreciate. Calling someone a gringo is just a way to recognize that person as a foreigner… and that’s ok.
9. Don’t venture into small-town Mexico without a little bit of Spanish and cash.
Getting out of the big cities and tourist spots is a necessary step for every Mexico visitor. This is the only way you’re gonna experience the real multi-cultural Mexico and all of the country’s natural beauty. However, most of the charm surrounding Mexico’s little towns and communities lies in the fact that they keep their traditions and lifestyle away from modern-day demands. English will not be around this time and people will not accept any payment method that’s not cash (and by cash, I mean Mexican pesos… and no big bills). This sounds like a logical caution to take, but you’ll be surprised by the amount of travelers I’ve found freaking out because they suddenly find themselves without a way to obtain money in the middle of the Puebla mountains.